This is not an article about the musical or the film of the same title, but it is about two gangs of aggressive male mobsters taunting and challenging each other for control of a disputed patch of territory. In this case, the two rival ‘firms’ are not the Jets and Sharks with plastic knives flashing and fake pistols in hand during an imaginary 1957 period. No, these two syndicated stand offs are occurring between the Russian political elite and the Anglo-Saxon political elite and the year is 2022. In this case the big-business mobsters‘ weapons are not fakes but sophisticated weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, the territory in dispute is not an imaginary street on a stage or film set, but a real stretch of territory – Ukraine! And the fights and the deaths are not staged but real and growing. However, to really understand what is currently taking place between the Russian Putin gang and the Western NATO gang, in this latest real life death and destruction, there is an important back-story to remember.
You may recall that a much earlier prequel to this real life West Side Story, commenced when maritime smash and grab mobsters from Europe and the UK decided to invade the lands of North and South America. They were looking for territory to conquer and wealth to steal. When these organised West Side Story funded gangs of Europeans began to colonise both North as South America it was already occupied by sophisticated darker skinned, hunter-gatherer people’s, whose objections were certainly heard – but not heeded. Native peoples were mostly greeted by organised West Side Story prejudice, land clearances and genocide. The West Side Story continued unfolding as venture capital funded settlers moved to the west and mobs of greedy capitalist plantation owners entered a period of intense agriculture using dark skinned human slaves stolen from the West Side of Africa.
This back-story also involves mentioning the intellectual supporters of the political leaders of this real non-fictional West Side Story, who had previously invented and promoted the idea of superior people’s and inferior peoples (racism) and the right of elites to forcibly control everything (authoritarianism). Pillage and annexation had been legalised! Eventually, the grand tour of the successful economic, political and military conquest by capitals West Side Story in the New World was followed by an extended tour in an easterly direction. The script was essentially the same but along with these later dramatic invasions and conquests came a new cast of performers to promote it throughout the middle and far east. To many people this particular West Side Story also became a dazzling global phenomenon playing, and applauded, at any venue that could guarantee a profit. To many it still is. Those native peoples who objected to playing a bit part in this ongoing off screen epic – and there were millions – were dealt with violently – back stage – and out of sight.
And this is where the elite raiding bands and clans organised in Russian territories enter this truncated outline of capitalism’s real ‘uncut’ West Side Story. Russia is a huge territory with a long history of the people living there who were conquered by vicious leaders with followers bent on exploiting their labour and oppressed their lives. From the 10th century Rus, through Mongol invasions, the conquests by Ivan the Terrible, and Boris Godunov to the later cast of authoritarian Czars, the cliques and military gangs who led the Russian elites were always eager for land and subordinated people to work it. As with Europe, feudal agriculture during Russia’s medieval period, was the way all elites obtained their wealth. Gaining more land and more peasants meant more gross production which was needed to feed, house and keep the growing number of elites in the manner they had by then become accustomed to.
However, by the time this real West Side Story seriously encountered continental Russia its own economic mode of production had become based upon industry not agriculture. In any elite rival gang contest for further territory, superior weapons and industrial technology (with winter exceptions), was invariably more successful and effective than simply having more territory. During the first world war (1914-18), the general war losses and socio-economic situation in Russia got so bad that the aristocratic war mongering leaders of Czarist Russia at the time, were ousted by a ‘peace, bread and land’ peasant and worker led revolution. A new political sect calling themselves Bolsheviks became the new ruling elite. (This part of history is where Putin’s February rambling reference to Lenin was plucked from.)
The workers were told by the Bolsheviks that the capitalist form of exploitation and oppression would be ended by them, but of course it wasn’t. Indeed, this new elite gang on the block, the Bolsheviks, could not end all this as long as they had a model of society in their heads and in their planning documents which involved industrial mass production, worked by wage-labour, organised by an elite band whose power base was backed up by a special force of armed men and women. For such class segmented systems to work, the essential workers must be made to work hard and long at levels of pay decided by the state planners and made to do all the things which the specialists, the planners, the politicians, the military and entertainers no longer did for themselves.
Consequently, workers who resent these top down modes of alienated production must be forced to do so to keep the system going. The origins of Lenin and the Bolsheviks use of authoritarian force and punishment in practice, commenced as soon as they took control of production via the Orgplan type committees. The resentment of the workers and peasants started more or less at the same time and continued for many decades. Eventually, well after the death of the authoritarian Lenin and the gangster Stalin etc., the state capitalist mode of production in its Russian variant collapsed and the Communist Party elite leadership circle atrophied with it. The last act of one of the remaining Communist Party leaders, the unpredictable Boris Yeltsin, was the promotion of KGB trained Vladimir Putin as President of Russia.
I ask the reader to pause for a moment and dwell on that last sentence. In this East Side Story, one man (Yeltsin) gives another man (Putin) almost absolute control over an enormous nuclear armed war machine which can effectively control what millions of Russian people do. But pause again. Is it really any better in the west? In the West Side Story, it takes a small group of men, (an inner caucus) to put forward another man to be voted into almost absolute control of an enormous war machine which also effectively controls another mass of people. Does having one or a even a half-dozen backers – make any real difference? The reality is a capitalist oligarchic gang can ensure their chosen leader can be given unlimited power to fulfill his (and their) ideas, desires or whims, whether he (or she) is just an indulgent egotist or a raving meglamaniac.
Organising mass societies with such hierarchical structure’’s built into them is form of intellectual blindness bordering on congenital madness. It is clearly asking for trouble even if another Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Gengis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Trump, Putin or Biden does not get their gangs nomination to become a ‘great man’ leader. For many centuries, humanity has needed to undermine and abolish these hierarchical social structures but now with Atomic, Biological and Chemical weapons of mass destruction and Industrial levels of pollution to match, the need has become even more important. Putin in reach of a nuclear detonator underlines this point in practice irrespective of any theoretical anticipations. Politics and positions of power are the equivalent of cancer within societies and need abolishing.
With regard to politics, an interesting phenomena arose around the previously noted East Side Bolsheviks gang story. It is one that has resurfaced in recent statements by some on the international left. A myth was perpetuated among some of the supposedly ’radical’ (!) left, that Leninist Soviet Russia was a considerable socio-economic advance over the West Side Story play book of capitalism and that it is therefore, the NATO ‘mob’ which are the real problem for struggling humanity. Therefore, for these particular lefts, holding the NATO crew in check trumps any other consideration – no matter who gets in the way. Of course they know that holding back the powerful NATO West Side Story mob isn’t simple, it needs a rival super power leader to do this and these ‘balance of power’ focussed lefts think Putin is just the ‘man’ to do it! NB! Left dualistic, ‘lesser evil’ or balance of power thinking people, can thus very easily become reactionary and still think they are progressive.
In addition, some loyal Communist Party members and other assorted Stalinist’s and Leninist’s also could not admit their heroes (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin etc) were fatally flawed human beings who were (or became) authoritarians, terrorising, torturing, murdering workers and peasants and also making fundamental rookie errors in politics, economics and ecology. Therefore a few of these various ‘big power’ die-hards – who remain among the 21st century left – prefer to condemn the West Side Story, (Washington) gang and grant the current Russian East Side Story, (Moscow) gang the right to defend itself. Note also that the idea of changing the mode of production to get rid of all elite mob cultures has been abandoned by these lefts and the best they can now imagine to face the 21st century compound crisis of capitalism is a new cold war type stalemate between two rival, armed to the teeth, superpower cliques.
Although paraphrased, the above ‘left‘ positions are accurate enough to indicate that they myopically ignore a crucially important fact: Each elite authoritarian gang leaders (Russia’s and the West’s) are not defending humanity – or the planet for that matter. They are defending their own authoritarian power and not just from other pro-capitalist groups – but primarily from their own working populations! Moreover, they are doing so systematically and often brutally.
Typically in gang warfare, particularly on the stage or in films, the gang leaders and promoters of a ‘rumble’ in the urban ‘jungle’, prefer the audience to pick a side and in real life the same holds true. Hence in the current situation with regard to the invasion of Ukraine by the latest East Side Story mob, the rival NATO outfit would prefer us to deny the Putin narrative and regurgitate theirs. And most of the western media has done exactly what is desired and expected of them in this regard. However, I suggest in a contest between two blood-thirsty capitalist elite godfather type crews the main object of working class activists is to both deny and undermine the legitimacy of both. Our concern is not over the rights of these (or any other) big-power bullies, to defend themselves, but for the safety and support of those caught in the middle of such gang instigated violence.
Furthermore, the working classes of all ethnicities, genders and ages, have nothing at all to gain from picking sides between superpower authoritarian elites connected to any country – including their own gang of politician’s! The fact is that the members of these elite profit-based ‘outfits’ are all prepared to exploit and oppress all the rest of us whilst ruining the planets ecology and extinguishing any other organic life forms that get in their way. As representatives of humanity we need to use our energy and intelligence to educate, organise and defend all oppressed humanity against all forms of authoritarianism. The last thing we should do is allow ourselves to be duped by dualistic sophistry into supporting one form of authoritarian control over another. Humanity needs a different form of society and different forms of economic production; forms which will allow us to live ecologically and without the exploitation and oppression of our own species or the other species we live among.
Roy Ratcliffe (March 2022)